Once again, the Wine Spectator New York office was without an NCAA tournament office pool, and I was forced to satisfy my bracket-lust and desire to throw around the word "prognostications" for a few weeks by setting up a repeat of last year's tourney taste-off. Our predictions didn't quite pan out in 2007, but I'm confident this year's forecast will bear fruit. Plus, I've increased my chances by reducing the field to four in our highly unscientific, non-blind taste-off featuring wines made near each of the universities competing in the men's NCAA basketball Final Four. (Participating winery owners were asked to submit wines they felt best represented both their winery and their state.)
Semifinal Match-Up No. 1: Malibu Family Wines The Semler Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Saddle Rock-Malibu 2005 ($27, representing the UCLA Bruins) vs. Chateau Ross Big Bitch Red 2003 ($17, representing the University of Memphis Tigers)
The Big Bitch Red looks intimidating at the start. In fact, the team mascot, Caymus the rottweiler, is prominently featured on the label. The wine showed a refined sweetness and a backbone of fruit. Unfortunately for the Big Bitch, the Semler Cab from the new Saddle Rock-Malibu AVA is clearly in a class all by itself. The Semler team shows balance and structure right from the start. It also shows off the classic California Cabernet style that might just make UCLA back-to-back WineSpectator.com NCAA Final Four Taste-Off champions.
Result: The Big Bitch Red put up a fight, but it was never close. The Malibu Cabernet showed clean fruit flavors with a decent tannic structure and a strong finish, outclassing its opponent in every respect. The Tennessee red showed some potential, but this year, they never had a chance. Semler and the Bruins are moving on.
Semifinal Match-Up No. 2: Smoky Hill Kansas Norton 2006 ($23, representing the University of Kansas Jayhawks) vs. RayLen North Carolina Merlot 2006 ($14, representing the University of North Carolina Tar Heels)
This looked like it was going to be a blowout before the corks even popped. A Norton wine from Kansas surely couldn't compete with a Merlot from North Carolina's Yadkin Valley AVA. Or could Smoky Hill be Cinderella at this year's ball? The RayLen Merlot was nicely structured, but they seemed off balance, and the Smoky Hill Norton took advantage. While the Merlot was sweating out every possession, the Norton was showing an almost sleek style, with candied orange, clove, potpourri and tea flavors.
Result: The Smoky Hill Norton wins in a huge upset. The RayLen Merlot just didn't seem ready to play, and Smoky Hill took advantage. The Norton dons the glass slipper and heads to the finals.
Championship Taste-Off: Malibu Family Wines The Semler Estate Syrah Saddle Rock-Malibu 2005 ($24, UCLA) vs. Smoky Hill Kansas Norton 2006 (Kansas)
As the championship taste-off is set to begin, the team from Malibu makes a substitution despite the success of its Cabernet. In comes the Syrah, which appears to be quite the big, bruising wine on first inspection. Smoky Hill sticks to its game and brings the deceptively slick Norton back out. The Norton has spunk, and the Syrah is clearly not of the same quality as the Cabernet at this tasting, coming out a little flat but showing potential.
Result: As fun as it is to root for Cinderella, the big Semler Syrah from L.A. was just too much for the little Norton that could. While it didn't have the fruit profile of its Semler sibling Cabernet, the Syrah was put together well enough that the tea and orange flavors of the Norton were no match for the wines from Malibu. UCLA and their representative winery repeat as champions in the second annual WineSpectator.com Final Four Taste-Off, and if they make it back to the dance next year, the competition will have their hands full yet again.
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